The teeth in the neck gambit obviously starts all of this. Don’t think I’ll forget that. Don’t expect for one moment you’re going to get off too easily. You might not be the only one to blame, but you’re still mostly to blame.
For how you come to me when I’m by myself, a lonely girl in a goblin market where some treasures are best left undiscovered. Tonight, my mother’s hosting another soirée, all in my honor, a way to find me the perfect husband. She doesn’t care what I have to say about it. Nobody cares what I say, so without a word, I slip out the back door and take an evening stroll through the city, past the downtown train station with its melancholy whistles and along cobblestone streets with vendors that keep strange hours.
“What do you seek, pretty girl?” they ask, their lips curled up in grotesque smiles, each of them proffering me trinkets meant to solve problems I don’t have.
My nervous hands clasped in front of me, I turn away, and that’s when I see you. There at the corner, emerging beneath a gaslight, your voice a sweet melody that could pied-piper all the children of London to their unmarked graves.
“Good evening, Miss Lucy,” you whisper, and my skin hums in refrain. I never ask how you know me. It should be my first question, but you don’t look like a question to me. You look like an answer—an escape from the everyday, the humdrum of parlors and suitors and a future where I’ll surrender my name and freedom in exchange for a title.
Missus. Mother. Nothing more.
But you pretend to offer another way. In an instant, we’re together, perched side by side on an iron park bench, and you share everything about yourself—where you came from, how you traveled aboard a ship named after Persephone’s mother, a woman who knew loss so intimately. Your gaze speaks to me of loss, too. It feels as though you already know me, that we’ve met like this a thousand times before, so I lean in and whisper my secrets in your ear. How I’m desperate for something more, something you promise me without ever speaking a word. You might be a stranger, but it seems safer to share these things with you than with my own best friend.
As the moon slips across the sky, you guide me to my feet, and we sway together, dancing to music no one else can hear.
“Don’t let me go,” I say, and you smile, because you’ll oblige, just not quite the way I expect.
Your breath sweet as marzipan, you embrace me, one hand on my shoulder and the other on the small of my back. We’re so close I can barely breathe. Then all at once, I can’t breathe or move or even scream.
When you finish with me and I return home, my head heavy and vision blurred, the party is long over, and the house has gone quiet. In my own bedroom, nothing looks familiar, not the faded floral wallpaper or the vanity arrayed with candlesticks or the canopy beds, one that’s mine and the other with Mina curled up in the dark.
“Are you awake?” I ask, my voice splitting in two, blood on my hands, blood that’s all my own. But she’s already fast asleep, and it isn’t worth waking her now, even if I could form the words to tell her what you’ve done to me.
2. My Mother
She could have warned me.
She could have stitched crosses into all my corsets and brewed me vervain tea until my blood was brimming with it and you wouldn’t have wanted me.
Better yet, she could have taken my hand, and I would have taken Mina’s, and we could have run together, further than the edge of town, further than the Carpathian Mountains, to somewhere no man would be brave enough to follow.
But that isn’t what she did. It isn’t what any of our mothers have done. This is the world they inherited, and it’s the one we’ll get too. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect anything more.
(My father with his bulging bank account and dirty fingernails is below mention. Sometimes, men can be far crueler than monsters.)
3. My Best Friend
Mina, sweet Mina, a light of all lights. Even if my mother wouldn’t have come with us, we still could have fled this city of death. That was what we always wanted.
“Shall we run away together today?” I’d ask, back when we were just girls who didn’t know enough to know we should be afraid.
“Tomorrow,” she would whisper, and we’d laugh and dance together in the garden maze, our fingers entwined, fresh blooms of wisteria woven through our hair.
For years, I believed tomorrow would come. But today has come instead, the morning when Mina can see the gray glint in my eye, this unwitting change stirring within me, all thanks to what you’ve done.
Now she only shakes her head. “We’re not children anymore, Lucy,” she says, and I suppose this means we can no longer dream.
That night, I latch the bedroom window, but that won’t be enough to stop you. Though I never invite you in, you’re everywhere now, your shadow as weightless and oppressive as the August heat.
“Hello, my love,” you whisper in the dark, your voice soft and sweet yet still strong enough to drown out the gentle thrum of my own heartbeat. You don’t ask me what I want. You can’t be bothered to care about that.
In your cold arms, my head lolls back, and through the open window, I listen to the mournful train whistle downtown, as passengers in fine red silks and gray-flourished top hats come and go, departing and returning from places I’ll never know.
“I could take you wherever you’d like to go,” you say, wetting your lips, and though I want to believe you, I already know the truth, even if it’s too late now to matter.
In the next bed, Mina sleeps her dreamless sleep, and as you press your mouth against my throat, I reach out for her across the gloom, but she might as well be a thousand miles away.
Mina isn’t like me. She wouldn’t go walking at midnight, and she would never have listened to your lies. That’s why she’ll survive. Proper young ladies like her always do. They learn from my example how not to die.
(Even as I write these words, I know this isn’t really her fault. She’s only done what’s expected—shed her hopes, shed her name, chose a husband. There are worse sins. There are your sins.)
4. My Fiancé
I have to choose someone too. That’s the rule.
My mother holds more parties in my honor, and the men descend, vultures that they are, squeezing into every corner of the parlor, each of them on bended knee as though they’re at my mercy and not the other way around.
“Pick me, Miss Lucy,” their voices echo through the house, following me no matter where I hide. Nobody notices that my skin has gone pale, my eyes receded, and that perhaps I’m more in need of a passable doctor than an eligible bachelor.
“No more,” I want to say, but they wear me down and wear me thin until I close my eyes, spin in a circle, and say yes to the first one I see.
He isn’t the worst of them. This so-called honorable lord might even be better than most, because he’s so ordinary, blander than yesterday’s porridge, and part of me hopes that means he won’t make unreasonable demands. Maybe with him, I won’t have to fear a belt or a fist or a calloused hand that will hold me down until I scream, until I learn that screaming will do no good, until I’ve gone as mute as the dead.
Choosing him is supposed to keep me safe. Yet the moment he slips the ring on my finger, it feels like a gold-shaped prison. My dreams are fading away, as ethereal as the fog that brought you here.
Before bed, I lock the window again, and this time, you don’t return. You’ve moved on to your next conquest. I hope that means that I’m safe now, that the worst is over, but while I’m asleep, Mina vanishes as well, departing for her own matrimonial funeral.
She leaves a note on my vanity. Good luck, my Lucy. As though all the luck in England could ever rescue us from this.
I sleepwalk through the next afternoon, hollowed out and aching, never hearing any of my mother’s eager wedding plans or my fiancé’s pointless promises. Outside, the wisteria is blooming in the garden, but its scent dissolves in the air, lost to me in the same way that I’ve lost everything else.
After midnight, I crawl out of bed and across the room, a leaden weight in my belly. Striking the last match, I light the candlesticks and read Mina’s letter for the hundredth time, as though I’ll discover some secret code. Only nothing’s there but the same four words, empty as before. My chest twisted and heavy, I glance up at myself in the vanity, and everything in me goes numb.
I’m barely there. I’m barely anywhere. A thin scream lodges in my throat, as right in front of my eyes, my reflection is abandoning me. And it isn’t doing the decent thing and disappearing all at once. Instead, I sit here at the mirror, grief seeping through my heart, and I watch myself disintegrate slowly. Hour by hour, I become less of me, my features going gray and translucent. By morning, I won’t exist. This body will remain, but I will not. I’ll be easy to forget too, a footnote in a story that’s not my own.
When it’s almost dawn and I’m almost gone, I exhale another scream, louder this time, and though you can’t be bothered to hear me, wherever you are, I manage to wake the rest of the house.
“Lucy?” My mother’s footsteps patter down the hall, but I don’t answer her.
This can’t be real. This can’t be how I end. My hands unsteady, I lift the pair of burning candlesticks and pitch the fire at what remains of my own reflection. It does no good. Nothing will save me now.
With the candles limp on the floor, their flames sear through the rug, and I back into the corner, breathless. When my mother finally forces open my door, she cries out at the sight of me, of what I’m becoming. Then she barricades my bedroom and calls in someone to help.
That’s when the worst of them arrive.
5. The Out-of-Town Doctor
I awaken in the morning to a man with a heavy leather bag and heavier words, his voice booming up and down the stairs, ricocheting like a silver bullet off the yellowed wallpaper.
“Anemia,” he declares in the first of his lies, and sheds his fur-collared coat on the floor. “We’ll fix that.”
I never catch his name, because he only ever speaks over and around me, never to me. There’s no reason to expect anything better. A scientist in a lab wouldn’t introduce himself to the frog pickled in formaldehyde, so why should this famed doctor bother to say hello to the wan girl restrained on the canopy bed? I’m worse than a specimen in a jar. Just ask my mother.
“She never listened, never acted like she should,” she weeps in the hallway, and my fiancé embraces her.
“It’ll be all right now,” he says, and I wonder who exactly it will be all right for. Certainly not me, not when the doctor threads his stiff tubes into my veins and calls all my former suitors into the room.
“Leave me alone,” I whisper, but the house turns cold, and nobody seems to hear me.
My mother wavers in the doorway, her ruddy cheeks streaked with tears, as the men pin me to the mattress. One after another, right down the line, their starched shirts unbuttoned, sweat beading in the curve of their upper lips, they pump their blood into my body, filling me up with them. A transfusion, they call it, though I’ve got another word for it.
“Stop,” I say, but with their faces flushed and eager, they’re used to ignoring what I want.
For what it’s worth, I don’t believe this one. I won’t believe it, no matter how many times they tell me I should have known better.
“If only she’d stayed at home,” says my mother.
“If only she’d married sooner,” says my best friend.
“If only she’d been a better patient,” says the out-of-town doctor.
“If only she’d said yes to me instead,” say all the suitors I denied.
They’re wrong, they have to be. With their poisoned blood in my veins, I’d never beg these men or beg God to forgive me for what I haven’t done. The last breath draining out of me, I’d never hate myself for giggling too loudly in the garden or the parlor or the streets, for tossing my head back and letting out a shriek of delight that could split the sky and decorum in two. And after I’m dead, I’d never curl up in the shadows of my tomb and weep silently to myself, make-believing all the ways I could have laced my corset a little tighter, kept my shoulders a little straighter, been the kind of girl who might have made my mother proud.
I’d never blame myself for what wasn’t my fault, just because they claim it’s my burden to bear. Just because the world isn’t made for silly dreamers like me.
But like I said, I wouldn’t do any of that, so let’s not even talk about it.
7. The Faceless Mob
They come at night when my crypt is quiet. It might only be one or two of the men, or maybe it’s all of them—the doctor I don’t know, the suitors I spurned, the fiancé I never wanted. You might be there too, a shapeless form in the background, bleeding in with the rest, a torch in your hand and a sly grin on your face.
What I do know: this should be a safe place for me. Resting in my own coffin shouldn’t be so bad. I’ve always been a girl who wanted impossible things. Now I’m a corpse who wants only to be left alone. A fair request for the dead, but not something I’ll be lucky enough to get.
The first scratching at the mausoleum door, and what’s left of my heart quickens in my chest. It could be Mina, come at last to pay her respects. She’s the only one I’m willing to see. Her hand is strong enough to slip the slab from my coffin, to free me from this place.
“We could still run away,” I whisper to the dark, but then their gruff voices seep through the stone, and all that I know is it isn’t her.
One other thing I know: I haven’t left this tomb. Nestled here in an ivory lace dress meant for a wedding altar, I’ve been quiet and calm and nothing like you. I haven’t gone into the night and indulged this hunger that writhes inside my belly, the dubious gift you’ve given me.
Yet the truth means nothing to these men. They thrive on gossip, and they’ll use their lies, sharp as dog-rose thorns, against me. They’ll claim I’ve done terrible things. Because you can’t let a corpse rest. You have to make sure the corpse learned her lesson.
“We need to help Miss Lucy,” they agree. All for my own good of course. All to save me from myself.
When they write about this in their journals, they’ll say they looked me in the eye when they finished me. They’ll say they banded together with wreaths of garlic flowers and words of comfort for the dead. They’ll say they were brave men who had no other choice.
These are just more of their lies.
There’s a reason I can’t be sure which of them is here—they never dare to show their faces. Instead, packing fodder waist-high around my tomb, they barricade me in and set me alight from the outside.
I’m already dead, but that doesn’t matter. These men know all the best ways to hurt me. As the fire rages, they linger outside and listen to me scream, my skin puddling in my coffin, my brittle bones and brittle heart reduced to ash.
I never thought dying twice could be so painful.
8. No one at all
How many ways can you murder a girl? Too many to count, I suppose, but it makes no difference in the end. Because in a countryside filled with monsters, there isn’t time to mourn the ones like me forever.
And it turns out you’re an expert in forever. In the legends about you, no one ever seems to question how you can always rise again. It’s easy to believe that a man of power could conjure himself from dust. But nobody expects the girls you destroy to do the same. We’re meant to be lost. Death is our birthright and our destiny.
Only maybe it’s not mine. Maybe more than a phoenix, more than just men like you, can surface from the embers. It could be that nobody murdered me after all, because maybe I’m still here.
The sun rises and falls again from the sky, and something happens in the mausoleum darkness. A spark that shouldn’t be, one that you and the other men could never imagine. The burnt slab shifts off my tomb, shattering on the ground, and one fragment at a time, I piece myself back together, a patchwork monster of a girl. Hair like charred straw, colorless marrow that’s soft yet stronger than infinity.
The fire in my crypt scorched my flesh, but it burned away my fear too. All that’s left of me now are these dreams of something else, something better. I won’t be a conquest or a footnote or an afterthought, and I won’t be the one who’s forgotten.
Fresh skin stretches taut over my splintered bones, and I part my new lips and exhale a scream meant only for you. Tucked inside your Scots pine coffin, you hear me, my voice from afar boiling in your ears like the blood you crave. For once, regret stirs in you, because you finally realize you can make a mistake too. You can choose a girl who simply won’t die.
When you flee back to your castle in the mountains, the men think you’re running from them, but I know the truth—you’re really running from me. They’ll run too, when their time comes. Since I don’t know which of them visited my crypt, it only seems fair to blame them all.
For now, though, you’ll have to do. At the downtown station, I climb aboard an evening train headed east. None of the other bustling passengers notice me. In this new body, I’m like a ghost, here and not here, a specter that can be seen only when I say so. The world has wanted to ignore me, and I’ll use that now to my advantage.
In my solitary compartment, I close my eyes and envision you. The way you run home like an admonished child, and how quickly the men catch up with you. They outnumber you by a mile, but even once you’re at their mercy, they won’t understand what to do. Those clumsy hands of theirs, gripping carved wood and crucifixes, fingers trembling all the while. They might turn you to cinders, but they’ll also leave you there to resurrect yourself. Soon there will be another trip across the sea, and another dreamy girl in a goblin market who doesn’t know to be afraid.
Except not this time. As the locomotive engine chugs across the mountains, carrying me to you, I’ll make sure of that much. Let the girls go on dreaming. Let them wander city streets that aren’t so fearsome without you waiting there in the darkness.
You once knew my secrets. Now I know yours. Faraway, in a castle that reeks of withered bellflowers and heartache, you’ll rise from the ash, and I’ll be there to greet you, with my new bones and new skin and this thirst I’ll never slake. We’ll sway together in the ruins you’ve created, dancing to music only we can hear.
And with a hand on your shoulder and another through your heart, I promise you that I’ll never let you go.